The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a powerful tour of the emotional realities of late-20th century Czech history. Centered on the story of the young couple Tereza and Tomas, the novel explores the themes of infidelity and meaning-making against the backdrop of the Prague Spring period of 1968. Although intellectual in tone, the novel is entirely readable, thought-provoking, and remains a vibrant lens on history as well.
Amanda and Clay – a successful, liberal New York couple – are staying in a smart rental summer house in the Hamptons with their kids. When the phone and internet connections go down and a black couple, claiming to be the owners of the house, knock on the door asking for shelter, Amanda and Clay’s proclaimed tolerance is put to the test. Who is this couple? Can they be trusted? And why doesn’t the communications network function? Cyberattack? Terrorism? War? Nuclear accident? Catastrophe looms in Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, the most unsettling and frighteningly believable novel I’ve read in a long time.
In a row of cabins along a Scottish loch, families are trying to enjoy their summer holiday. It’s been bucketing down for several days and claustrophobia is setting in. Siblings are bickering, parents’ tempers flare. (Been there?) Bored, they observe each other through the ‘French doors’ of their cheaply built wooden cabins. Some venture out and some are sent out, mostly to relive the tension building inside. Summerwater by Sarah Moss, is a quietly unsettling little book that deals with family life, secrets and conflict, set in an ominous world, which I consumed in one sitting.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson is a near impossible sell. With its dreadful cover (really??) and odd sounding storyline (twins who catch fire when they get agitated) my go-to-bookseller struggled to convince me. Luckily, I succumbed because this is an utterly surprising, funny and moving novel. It’s the story of the Lillian, an aimless loner, who’s hired by her glamorous friend Madison as nanny for her twin stepchildren. There’s a catch: the twins combust when they’re upset. If you find this plot implausible, you won’t be alone, but somehow Wilson succeeds in making it credible and what seems like a shallow novel turns into something much weightier.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima in the FT last week piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have a soft spot for novels set on sailing ships. The wilder the storms and the longer the journeys, the better, so when I came across the recently published The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton, I wasn’t hard to convince. Set in the 17th century on a ship crossing from Batavia (Jakarta) to Holland, Turton’s book is packed with wild storms, betrayals, demons, murders and a plot to make your head spin. If you enjoyed Ian McGuire’s The North Water or indeed Turton’s last book The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, this book will be for you.
Just Like You by Nick Hornby provided just the kind of escape I’m craving right now. A sweet love story between a 42-year-old divorced English teacher and a 22-year-old butcher shop assistant. The former a woman, the latter a man (the opposite would have made the book a no-go these days). Hornby throws in the added twists of the woman being white and the man black, each of them from different social backgrounds. With the cards stacked against them, will their love survive?
As 2020 heads into autumn with no sign whatsoever of Covid relaxing its destructive grip on all that we know, this little-known novel provided me with a welcome distraction from the bombardment of grim headlines about Corona and Brexit. The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff was first published in 1931. Sherriff was the author of Journey’s End; a First World War play that is often hailed as one of the greatest of its time. The Fortnight in September is vastly different in subject matter but shares its emphasis on real people living real lives. It charmed and delighted me with its simple yet moving narrative.
There comes a time in life, usually around puberty, when you wake up to the fact that your parents are not the infallible heroes you thought they were. Moreover, as Giovanna in The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante discovers, they lie. White little lies to cheer you up and, sometimes, dark, destructive lies that can ruin marriages and lives. Ferrante’s latest book, like her best-selling Neapolitan quartet, is also set in Naples, but this time in a middle-class academic home. The deceptions, passions and betrayals are the same, however, as is Ferrante’s extraordinary ability to inhabit the mind of someone else. My favourite Ferrante book remains The Days of Abandonment, but die-hard Ferrante fans will still want to read this book.
It’s a frustrating read Booker Prize Winning (2019) Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This book has so much going for it: the fun, effortless writing, the fresh, contemporary look at black women’s lives, even the punctuation-free writing works. Amongst the stories of 12 black women’s lives, there are some truly fabulous ones. Stories that bring you into other people’s lives in a way only the very best literature does. It’s a shame then that there are too many of them (how about 6 rather than 12, for example) and that some feel rushed leaving the reader craving for more while others snail along and fail to engage.